Today, as I noticed on Sunday in the listings of saints’ days and other commemorations falling this week, is a day dedicated to Caedmon, a seventh-century Northumbrian peasant who composed one of the earliest extant pieces of Old English poetry in the area around what became Whitby abbey. The poem is recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
The story goes that Caedmon, an illiterate cow-herd, was always embarrassed that he couldn’t sing before his master (Hilda the Abbess of Whitby). One night he had a vision where a messenger from God came down and told him to sing of the creation of things; and he did. He apparently composed many other poems and eventually became a monk, but all that has come down to us in one poem, the first English writing that we have.
(From the New Penguin translation, 1991):
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard,
Meotodes meahte ond his modgeþanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder; swa he wundra gehwæs
ece Drihten, or onstealde.
He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe, halig Scyppend:
þa middangeard moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten, æfter teode
firum foldan, Frea ælmihtig.
Praise now to the keeper of the kingdom of heaven,
the power of the Creator, the profound mind
of the glorious Father, who fashioned the beginning
of every wonder, the eternal Lord.
For the children of men he made first
heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.
Then the Lord of mankind, the everlasting Shepherd,
ordained in the midst as a dwelling place,
Almighty Lord, the earth for men.